After unifying China, Qin Shi Huangdi set about introducing wide-ranging reforms to centralise the empire. Many of these reforms were beneficial to Chinese society, such as those we studied last week, but many were cruel and degrading, using terror to discourage opposition amongst the people. Qin and Li Si did not believe in the Confucian idea that it was best for the ruler to be good and caring in order to encourage the people to do the right thing. Instead, they preferred to rely on rules and harsh punishments.

Social Control

Qin Shi Huangdi’s officials developed a number of methods to control the population, set up social distinctions, restrain criminal activity and promote the farmers’ work in the fields. A series of eighteen ‘orders of honour’ were developed to confer status and privileges on an individual. Some of these privileges included mitigation of punishment for crime; favourable terms for statutory obligations; and probably an allocation of land with which to make a living.

Another institution, which focused on social cohesion and the repression of crime was the organisation of five or ten families into a group. The members of these groups were responsible for reporting suspicious activities or crimes of any one of them. A few recorded cases of the trial of a suspected criminal show how an official could require members of a responsibility group to give evidence.

Criticism of the government was not tolerated by the First Emperor, who wanted the government to control knowledge. Education was to be provided only by officials and solely for the purpose of training future officials.

The Emperor decreed that he was the only one allowed to have an army. He needed these armed forces to maintain internal security against would-be dissidents and for protection against potentially hostile peoples of the hills and pasture lands of Central Asia, such as the Xiongnu. Qin’s armies drew on the conscripts whom the provincial officials assembled and perhaps to some extent on criminals. Some of these forces manned the garrisons of the north, commanded by provincial officials or officers who may be likened to ‘generals’.

The Great Wall of China

One of the most important building projects that took place during the Qin Empire was the Great Wall of China. It is to date the biggest single construction project ever completed on earth and the only structure created by humans that is visible from space. At over 5000 km it was a huge task to undertake. Qin Shi Huangdi, however, did not have to start the Great Wall from the beginning. During the Warring States period, separate states had built walls between themselves and their neighbouring states. They had also built other walls to protect themselves from invasion by the nomadic Xiongnu tribes to the north. In order to unify the country, Qin Shi Huangdi ordered the destruction of the walls that the former states had built between themselves and the linking of the walls already built to prevent invasion from the Xiongnu. Watchtowers were also built to strengthen the wall’s defence.

The Great Wall of China made up just one part of a huge building program that was ordered by Qin Shi Huangdi and his successor. Approximately 700 000 men were conscripted to build palaces and about another 700 000 were used to build Qin Shi Huangdi’s mausoleum. Hundreds of thousands of men were conscripted to build roads, serve in the army and link the separate walls. The result was that the Great Wall stretched for about 2400 km from Lintao in the west, to Liaodong, in the east.

Historians believe that the emperor’s feat was accomplished at a cost of perhaps as many as a million labourers’ lives. It was also achieved at the cost of great economic suffering on the part of the peasants. As much as 2/3 of the peasant’s harvested crops were taken from them as land rent, in order to finance these works.

Burning of the Books and Killing of the Monks

The centuries leading up to the unification of China had witnessed the first flowering of China’s intellectual development. Manuscripts found in the 1970s have revealed a greater diversity of the thoughts of those days than had been recognised and confirmed that these should not be classified into exclusive schools. The writers of those times were individualists quite ready to draw eclectically from the works of their contemporaries.

After his advisor Li Si complained that scholars’ used records of the past to denigrate the emperor’s policies and undermine popular support, Qin Shi Huangdi decreed that all writings other than useful manuals on topics like agriculture, medicine, or divination were to be collected for burning. It is believed that approximately 460 scholars were also buried alive in a common grave as a warning against defiance of the emperor’s orders.

According to Sima Qian, Li Si said “…Now Your Majesty has conquered the whole world…set unified standards. Yet those opinionated scholars get together to slander the laws and judge each new decree according to their own school of thought, opposing it secretly in their hearts while discussing it openly in the streets. They brag to the sovereign to win fame, put forward strange arguments to gain distinction, and incite the mob to spread rumours. If this is not prohibited, the sovereign’s prestige will suffer and factions will be formed among his subjects. Far better put a stop to it!…I humbly propose that all historical records but those of the Qin be burned…If thirty days after the issuing of this order the owners of these books have still not had them destroyed, they should have their faces tattooed and be condemned to hard labour at the Great Wall.”

Some scholars managed to hide their books and the imperial library retained copies of the forbidden texts, especially Confucius and Mancius.